Christian women

“Women in Christianity” is a vast and complex subject with multiple dimensions as Christianity is one of the largest religions in the world practiced in different societies and cultures around the world. When we deal with the subject of “Women in Christianity” we need to understand that Christianity as that exists today is a mix of different denominations with Catholics and Protestants being the principle denominations. Further it would be prudent to delve into the history of Christianity to understand the role of women in this religion. In early Christianity there was no separate roles prescribed for men and women and women were not distinguished separately from men. This was despite the fact that the society in West Asia at that time was highly patriarchal in nature.

Women in Christianity: The early Christian prophets

From West Asia, Christianity spread to ancient Greece and Rome which were purely patriarchal societies. In these societies women and children were thought of as assets or possessions held by the head of the family. Men and Women were distinguished separately in this kind of set up and women were generally considered inferior to men. During these times Christians believed that the world will end soon and Christ will come to earth for the second time. There were many women teachers and prophets in Christianity in those days who believed in this proposition and went their way in preaching this doctrine.

Women in Christianity: Development of the patriarchal thought

But the initial belief of the immediate “second coming” of the Christ did not happen. From hereon Christianity slowly started to evolve as a systemized religion with the churches enjoying enormous clout and power. This led to the development of the patriarchal thought in Christianity which abolished and discarded the earlier view that men and women should not be distinguished separately. The havoc of the power of churches continued for the next two thousand years during which women were not only treated as inferior to men but great atrocities were committed against independent women who were branded as witches and hunted down mercilessly.

Women in Christianity: Wave of change in twentieth century

Only in the twentieth century things started changing in Christianity. With the churches losing much of their clout and power in the twentieth century, with democratic governments firmly established in many countries in Europe as well as in America and with religion getting separated from politics things started to change in a dramatic fashion in Christianity that was never thought about in the last two thousand years of the religion. It all started with the early feminist movements and peaked with the second wave of feminism from the period of 1960s. This period saw a profound change in the status of women in Christianity as a religion. Women’s rights came in the forefront.

Women in Christianity: Feminist Theology

Feminist theology was established as a branch of feminism to study the role of women especially in Christianity. The feminist theological movement influenced the development of the Wisdom literature that expressed God through a feminine image.

Women in Christianity: Women’s liberation movement

The period of 1960s and thereafter can be considered as the beginning of the “women’s liberation movement” in history which advocated social, cultural, political and religious equality of the gender. Though the women’s liberation movement went full throttle in this period the patriarchal set up did not vanish as such and the concept of sexual dualism still existed. This concept not only viewed the differences between men and women in mere biological terms but it also ranked and applied values to these differences. For instance, men were considered to be more idealistic, spiritual, and psychic than women. On the other hand, women were thought to be more emotional, instinctive, and physical than men. This was a senario of absolute “gender stereotyping” and it existed from last two thousand years. In fact this kind of sexual dualism originated from the Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Christianity had adopted it since then. It was only the women’s movement in 1960s that challenged these kind of thinking to some affect.

Women in Christianity: Marian devotion

The patriarchal Christianity surprisingly also witnessed another phenomenon that is the Marian devotion. Catholics were highly influenced by this whereas the Protestants rejected this phenomenon. Marian devotion even affected the feminist movement in both ways. One school of thought believed that the Marian devotion helped to offer the feminine view on God where as the other school of thought believed that the Marian devotion in fact harmed the feminist movement. They said that proclaiming Mary as Virgin Mary and worshiping her in fact in this form is damaging to the cause of women as “women and womanhood” are elevated to the “high pedestal of morality” and they are inhibited or discouraged to express or explore the more humane side of their nature. The sexual and cultural revolution of the 1970s and 80s precisely wanted to break free from this high pedestals of morality attached to women and womanhood.

Women in Christianity: The two parallel movements

After 1960s the emergence of two parallel movements took place in Christianity as a religion and the society in general. These two movements were the liberal and conservative movements. These two parallel movements exist till date. The more liberal feminist theological movement is influenced by the goddess worship, wisdom literature, Jesus’ movement and Marian devotion. On the other hand the religious right within Christianity works on the principal of sexual dualism. The religious right tries to find values only within an established tradition and they resist change of any kind to an established order. The religious right opposes the liberal reproductive rights of women especially the right to abortion, it rejects cloning technology, it rejects homosexuality and it seeks reestablishment of traditional family ideals based on the patriarchal system. Initially the religious right was only involved with the faith but after the 1970s they have increased their presence in the matters of politics so that they can influence mainstream culture and society in a more profound manner. This is especially true in America. It is natural that the religious right hates feminists. They fear that women will assert themselves, gradually obtain various rights, and ultimately threaten the position of men. For the religious right the advancement of women in society means that they will ultimately take over the jobs of men. Also, they feel that the differences in traditional gender roles are quite essential.

However, from the viewpoint of feminists, gender roles are never absolute or essential. They feel that these were formed within society, and that the concept of “gender” was established to analyze and distinguish the differences in the roles of men and women.

Women in Christianity: The religious right and the liberal feminist theological movement

It is quite natural that the Religious Right criticizes feminists, who challenge the superiority of men. They in fact resist everything about the feminist movement. For example they even dislike the liberal welfare policies for women because under such policies, single mothers who need to raise their children and the economically destitute are assisted financially. The Religious Right view such assistance as preventing the establishment of traditional families. They also reject the relativism of human existence and therefore they are intolerant to other views, cultures and religions. They believe in the absolutism and purity of Christian values and tradition. For the religious right “Patriarchal Christianity” is the central core of all existence. Anything outside this central core has to be resisted and absolutely rejected.

In relation to the role of “women in Christianity” we can see that now we have two parallel schools of thought that exits within the religion as well as in the society. These are the liberal feminist theological movement and the conservative religious right movement. Though this being the current scenario it is not a static situation and there is a continuous evolution that is taking place in regard to the “role of women in Christianity” as it had happened in the last two hundred years or so.

Further to understand the role of Women in Christianity we need to study the following topics in detail

1. Women and the genesis of Christianity
2. Women and Christianity- This includes subtopics like Women of faith surviving but not reporting abuse.
3. Sexuality and early Christianity.
4. How Christianity Changed the World-This includes subtopics like freedom and dignity for women.
5. The advent of the Religious right and the goals of the Religious right.
6. Feminist theology-This includes subtopics like Re-interpretation of the historical origins of Christianity, re-examination of the Bible from the viewpoint of Women, Biblical translation using “Inclusive Language”, formation of new understandings of God, networks of women from Different cultures, sharing methodology with sexual minorities and presenting new views on ecology.

The changes that happened in the Christian society in the last two hundred years have also affected other cultures and religions in a profound manner. The feminist movement owes its roots to the Christian society and thanks to it feminism has become a global phenomenon today which advocates gender based equality and ending of all types of discriminations and bias against women. In fact the study of the role of “women in Christianity” transcends the spectrum of “religion” and gives us a broad perspective of the struggle of women from the last 200 years for a right to a dignified and meaningful life.